Study Guide

Boardwalk Empire Setting

By Nelson Johnson


Atlantic City

Atlantic City goes through some serious ch-ch-changes over the course of Boardwalk Empire. What begins as a tiny island village grows into mecca for tourists and gamblers—a place where super-wealthy businesspeople like Donald Trump call the shots. Buckle up, Shmoopers, because this is going to be a wild ride.

Island in the Sun

Atlantic City is located on Absecon Island, a small barrier island off the coast of New Jersey. Before Jonathan Pitney comes along, the island is sparsely populated, wildly unkempt, and generally a rough place to spend your time. Things don't improve much after Atlantic City is founded, either. One year, a massive "plague of insects […] nearly closed the resort down" (1.52), and there isn't even any fresh water on the island. Pitney may have a grand vision for this isolated resort town, but it just keeps getting blurrier and blurrier.

With time, however, Atlantic City thrives. The city reaches its peak under Nucky Johnson; in particular, "the 'Roaring '20s' were golden years for both Nucky and his town" (5.35). Prohibition helps, too, as it drives an increasing number of tourists to the city in the hopes of scoring some booze. Regardless of the reasons, though, Atlantic City explodes in popularity, its days filled with throngs of visitors and its nights with wild parties and world-class performances. These are high times for Atlantic City, but you know the rule: What comes up must come back down.

There and Back Again

At a certain point, collapse becomes inevitable. First the repeal of Prohibition ends Atlantic City's veritable monopoly on alcohol sales, and then the growing availability of modern technology makes tourists less prone to spend their hard-earned dough on a vacation there. Finally, the collapse of Nucky Johnson's political machine seals the deal. What was once "a prosperous and bustling seaside resort" has devolved into "a sleazy saltwater ghetto" (9.4). Ouch.

The legalization of gambling in 1976 changes everything once more, though. Gambling has long been a part of Atlantic City culture, but this is the first time in history it's in the hands of businesspeople rather than mobsters. Enter Donald Trump and his billionaire cohort, who build giant casinos that look "custom-baked for someone with more money than taste" (12.32). This transforms Atlantic City's economy, giving its residents a fighting chance for the first time in decades. For longtime Atlantic City residents, however, this is just another day at the office.